No one ever learns from history. As far as the Middle East is concerned, no lesson is more important than the one that historians know very well: you can start a war but only fate controls when and how it ends. And wars in this region do not end quickly. They drag on and on, as we see, for example, in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. Wars in this region create their own dynamics of self-perpetuation through foreign interventions, by spreading from rural to urban environments or from land to sea, through applications of conventional or guerrilla warfare or terrorism, through the use of the most rudimentary weapons to the most sophisticated instruments of death and with deployments of troops ranging from regiments to detachments and even to lone wolves.
Turkey is the latest example of this inability to learn from history. Moreover, it is a prime example, because it has embroiled itself not in one war, but in three: the war against the Kurds at home, the war in Iraq, against the Kurds there as well, and the war in northern Syria. In the latter it created a trap for itself by making itself a pawn to Islamist terrorist groups that are undecided as to whether to work with Ankara, to fight it, or to do both at the same time. It is also in another type of trap of its own making in northern Syria where it has provoked retaliation by Syrian Kurds, made itself a target of the Syrian regime and lent itself to perpetuation of the Russian presence. On the latest episode in its war in Syria, Ankara claimed that its purpose was to create a “safe zone” to prevent the Kurds from creating an independent entity, to use for the transfer of millions of refugees back to Syria, and to weaken Kurds inside Turkey from inside Syria. The actual result is that the so-called safe zone is more unsafe than ever. Turkey is now being targeted by the very terrorist groups that Ankara had helped infiltrate into Syria, armed and funded. Then, because of the extreme violence in that unsafe zone, another quarter of a million Syria refugees have fled to Turkey.
Apparently, three wars of choice are not enough for Ankara. It has now set its sights 2,000 kilometres away in northern Libya or, more precisely, northwest Libya where Erdogan signed a memorandum of understanding with Fayez Al-Sarraj of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli to delineate maritime boundaries where none should logically exist, and to sign a security agreement pledging Turkish military aid and active military intervention in Libyan territory. Clearly, Turkey wants to demonstrate its inability to learn another lesson from military history: do not fight a war on two fronts. Erdogan is in the process of leading his country from a third to a fourth front, burying Ankara’s “zero conflicts” foreign policy of a decade ago for good with his preference for conflict on all fronts.
On the latest front, which is a long way from Turkey, observers have noted that the GNA and Ankara have conflicting demands. From a purely military standpoint, Tripoli has nothing to gain from the security agreement unless Turkey commits troops on the ground. According to some estimates, this commitment would have to be the size of a full regiment of around 3,000 diversely equipped troops, plus air and naval coverage. With anything short of this, Tripoli would not be able to achieve parity with the Libyan National Army (LNA). When he first stepped into this latest military adventure, Erdogan was thinking in the neighbourhood of supplying arms and a couple of dozen trainers. But Al-Sarraj, who heads the GNA, felt that this was not enough, so he tried a gambit using Tunisia, claiming that a Turkish-Tunisian-Algerian coalition was in the process of formation. The Tunisian government and people put paid to that ruse. In terms of practical military operations, Turkey does not have the air or naval resources capable of sustaining a battle in Libya without making itself vulnerable in and over the Mediterranean. Turkish war planes would need constant refuelling in the air.
The Turkish dilemma is that it is acting not as a mid-size regional power but as a great power with the military and economic resources of such a power. But if Turkish resources are so overstretched, why is the Turkish leadership doing what it is doing? Why is it embroiling itself ever deeper in conflict? Why is it venturing into new crises instead of trying to resolve the crises it created for itself?
The answer is that Ankara has two strategic goals. The first is to extend Turkish influence in the region. The move to Libya and the southern Mediterranean is an extension of its drive toward the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. The second is economic. Turkey wants to plant its flag on the gas and oil fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, but on its own terms rather than in accordance with the provisions of international maritime law. So, it concocted a maritime boundary with a country with which it does not have opposing shores, not even via Turkish Cyprus, which is unrecognised by any other country but Turkey.
Both goals are not only beyond Turkey’s resources; pursuing them will only aggravate the Turkish dilemma. For one, Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean pits it directly against Russia, which supports the LNA and which does not want the war in Libya to spread and, indeed, has been working for a ceasefire. How will Ankara handle the contradiction between making an enemy of Russia in Libya while trying to keep it as a friend in Syria? Secondly, Turkish military intervention in Libya will entail a naval presence in the Aegean which, in turn, will further inflame long and historic tensions with Greece. Thirdly, as it fuels tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey will lock horns with Egypt and probably the other countries of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (Cyprus, Greece and Israel) which have agreed to build a pipeline to carry natural gas via Crete to Greece and Italy.
Europe, for its part, will need to establish a clear stance on Turkish military intervention in Libya which will exacerbate the problem of migrants and refugees coming across the Mediterranean to Europe. At that point, Europe will realise that it has nothing to gain from sustaining the economic support it has been giving Turkey to keep refugees from entering Europe from Turkey. After having increased the flow of refugees into Anatolia through its invasion of Syria, Ankara now plans to detonate a refugee/migrant bomb along the North African-Southern European axis.
The EU and NATO will be prime determinants of how the Turkish game plays out. Will they let Ankara proceed until the Turkish impetus fizzles out in another conflict? Or will they — and the US in particular — bring to bear a perspective on the Middle East informed by the Iranian approach to the region. Iran, too, pushed its luck, in Iraq in this case, until it reached the walls of the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly